The recent Olympic and Paralympic Games in London have certainly inspired the British, who greatly enjoyed hosting and participating in the games.  After much typically British cynicism and low expectations, we ended up surprising ourselves by not only organising the games well, but by becoming enthusiastic and cheerful participants, whether as competitors, spectators, volunteers or observers.  It was the only time in my life I have been able to smile at a stranger on the London Underground and not be regarded with utmost suspicion.

We thrilled at the drama of the games, recognising the courage and endurance it takes not only for the few moments of competition but in all the early mornings, long hours of training, struggling for funding and overcoming personal challenges needed to rise to the top of any sport, and particularly Paralympics.  We appreciated the genuine humility of the competitors, in contrast to many overpaid prima donnas who enjoy soccer celebrity.  We marvelled at their achievements: hundreds of world records fell during these games, demonstrating the extreme achievement of the athletes.  In several finals, every participant achieved at the very least a personal best, with world, Olympic and regional records being broken as well.

When everyone gets a Personal Best!

This has caused me to reflect on the Biblical references to games such as these.  St Paul, unusually for a Jewish person of his time, seems to have enjoyed sport, and referenced it in his letters, often as an example of personal discipline or endurance.  Running, boxing and chariot racing are mentioned or implied in his letters.  The writer to the Hebrews does the same, and in one famous passage draws inspiration from the stadium which would have been familiar to many of his readers.  In the opening two verses of chapter 12 we find references to the spectators, training weights, baggy and inconvenient togas (ancient athletes had to compete naked because they hadn’t invented lycra), running, endurance, contest and of course, the finishing line.

These sporting references are often overlooked because they are not instantly obvious to modern readers.  But the implication is clear: the Christian life is a race which demands of us everything demanded of Olympic champions: discipline, focus, dedication, commitment and endurance.  Such characteristics are available to all of us, athletic or not, by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  They are choices we make and attitudes we adopt.  We are not in competition with each other, but with ourselves, in our efforts to achieve a personal best.  Paul reminds us that the winning athletes only got a perishable laurel wreath to wear, whereas we get an everlasting one.  ‘So run in order to win’, he exhorts us (1 Corinthians 9:24).  If they put themselves through all that sacrifice just to get a bunch of leaves, he implies,  what will we do to earn an eternal crown of righteousness?

I wonder how many Christians bear more resemblance to chubby spectators sitting in front of the television than they do to the world’s greatest athletes.